Sound of Mind 5: Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians

Instead of a playlist, today’s Sound of Mind is a recommendation for a single, hour-long piece of music.

Few live experiences are more affirming than a complete performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a communal piece for a large ensemble of percussionists, pianists, violin, cello, clarinets and singers.

The work is a wonderful blend of set parameters and improvisation, with each musical signpost given by the metallophone in the middle – which chimes to start a new section of ideas. Reich’s ideas bubble up to the surface and generate terrific momentum, and the musical language – recognisably his own but drawing from much more primal, African origins – is wholly consonant.

Here is a brilliant live performance from the New York collective eighth blackbird, given at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Take the next hour and a bit out, and enjoy!

(Photo courtesy of Synergy Vocals)

Playlist – Sound of Mind

With the world in such a weird place at the moment, now seems like a good time to share a playlist of ambient music to ease the mind.

This one, homemade on the hoof, includes some personal favourites from Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Brian Eno, The Orb and a whole lot more:

I hope you enjoy it – and if you have any suggestions for future playlists please get in touch. Happy to do a whole load more!

Ben Hogwood

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 70: Daniel Pioro gives the world premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s Horror vacui

Jonny Greenwood (bass guitar/tanpura), Daniel Pioro (violin), Nicolas Mangriel (tanpura), Katherine Tinker (piano), BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Hugh Brunt

Biber Mystery (Rosary) Sonatas No. 16 – Passacaglia in G minor
Penderecki Sinfonietta for strings, second movement Vivace
Greenwood Three Miniatures from Water – No. 3; 88 (No. 1)
Reich Pulse
Greenwood Horror vacui

Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 10 September 2019 (late night Prom)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photo credits Mark Allan

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

Alongside his role as lead guitarist with Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood has a close relationship with the string orchestra. Detailing his love for the medium in the programme for this late night Prom, he explained his preference for live music over electronic or recorded alternatives, citing the living and breathing aspects of the instruments as his prime reason for using them.

Breathing into the stringed instruments became an aspect of his new piece, Horror vacui, written for violinist Daniel Pioro and an ensemble comprising string players from the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
Arranged in a fan shape across the stage, the orchestra had the lowest sounds at the back in the form of eight double basses and twelve cellos, with ten violas just in front of those. That left just the 38 violins in front, each of the 68 instrumentalists having their own specific part.

Greenwood’s directions for conductor Hugh Brunt were unconventional, his arm often sweeping across the ensemble from left to right and back again so that each instrument knew when to come in and fade away. This created a powerful visual and aural effect, the string players’ bows rising and falling like a sound wave.

Greenwood explained how Horror vacui is the fear of empty space, usually in paintings. This was vividly captured not just from the dense orchestration but from Daniel Pioro’s superbly played solo violin part. With incredibly secure intonation he excelled in the pure upper register passages, the notes soaring effortlessly towards the ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall. Beneath him the textures were always changing, sometimes secured by players blowing into their instruments, literally breathing life into them, or from deep-piled chords, some of which were huge blocks of consonant sound. Around 20 minutes in the biggest of these chords drew applause from the audience, most of whom thought the piece had finished there – and indeed it would have been a natural stopping point. There was still a substantial coda to follow, which ended in a pure C major with Pioro back up in the heights. The conventional end felt like a more obvious statement after Greenwood’s innovations earlier in the piece, and though beautiful felt tacked on to the end.

That said, Horror vacui is a very impressive and engaging piece of work – and here, with the orchestra under the leadership of the energetic Lesley Hatfield, it received the best possible performance.

We heard two other Greenwood pieces. The third of Three Miniatures from Water was perfect late night fayre, especially with the drones of two Indian tanpuras to enjoy, but ultimately was not long enough for pure indulgence. The shapes made by the smaller orchestra were pleasing to the ear – while the liquid torrents from solo pianist Katherine Tinker in the premiere of 88 (No.1) were harsher. The title reflects the number of keys on a modern grand piano, and Tinker surely used them all in the course of a virtuoso performance that built on watery influences from Debussy and Ravel.

Steve Reich’s Pulse transported us to the American plains. Written in thrall to Copland’s Appalachian Spring, this very approachable piece has all the Reich qualities of small, oft-repeated melodic cells and development, but also a warmth not lost on the ensemble here. Greenwood himself played bass guitar but it was the higher riff from the violins at the start of the piece that made a lasting impression.

The inclusion of Biber and Penderecki at the start was helpful. The former ensured we could adjust to the sound of a solo violin in the big space of the Royal Albert Hall, as well as the idea of a minimalist approach in the composer’s development of a relatively small chord sequence. That it comes from the early Baroque period, late 17th century, is startling. Penderecki, a friend and close musical ally of Greenwood’s, was present in the second movement of his Sinfonietta. Energetically played here, it is however wholly under the influence of Bartók in its musical language and scoring.

This was a stimulating concert with an attentive audience. A brief note should be made about timekeeping, however, as due to the required stage changes, no matter how efficiently done, this Prom did not finish until 11:55pm. While that is unquestionably value for money, it did inevitably lead to audience members having to leave half way through or even before the main work in order not to miss their last transport options of the evening. The anxiety this can breed is contagious and can affect the whole evening, not just for the leavers but those around them. It would surely have been beneficial for an earlier item in the program to have been omitted to avoid this, or for the concert to start at 10pm as Late Night Proms used to do. I myself had to leave Greenwood’s piece before the finish, as staying on would have landed me with a £70 cab fare and an extremely late night. BBC Sounds was on hand to help with the closing minutes, naturally – but it’s something for the BBC to consider in future.

You can watch this concert in a recording on BBC4 on Friday 13 September. Rehearsal clips for Horror vacui on the BBC website

Wigmore Mondays – Colin Currie Quartet in music by Pereira, Volans, Stockhausen & Reich

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colin Currie Quartet (Colin Currie, Sam Walton, Adrian Spillett, Owen Gunnell (percussion)

Pereira Mallet Quartet (2013 (1:36 – 10:08 on the broadcast link below)
Volans 4 Marimbas (2016) (12:38 – 33:21)
Stockhausen Vibra-Elufa (2003) (35:40 – 41:27)
Reich Drumming Part 1 (1970-71) (44:30 – 59:59)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 1 July 2019

To hear the BBC broadcast through BBC Sounds, please follow this link

Commentary and Review by Ben Hogwood

What a refreshing change to have percussion taking centre stage for a Monday lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall. Not only that but two of the four pieces had that ‘just off the shelf’ feeling, with the Joseph Pereira and Kevin Volans pieces written for Colin Currie’s ensemble. As an added bonus, South African composer Volans – 70 this year – was in the audience.

Pereira, principal percussionist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave us bright metallic sounds from the start (1:36 on the broadcast). Crisp unison blocks of sound were broken up by quicker figures that gave the Mallet Quartet energy. With a broad range of timbres and pitches, the bursts of activity were often followed by pauses, giving a stop-start feel but ultimately heightening the drama. At 7:30 the quartet converged on a single pitch, D, the high point of the piece at which point the music takes a natural breather. Then the pitches regroup from the depths, returning to a treble pitch from which we tumble down what feels like a waterfall. Pereira’s music pictorial to the close.

Kevin Volans4 Marimbas (from 12:38) exhibited a warmer sound, the players using softer sticks to create a fluid and soothing experience, like running water. As it developed the players negotiated twists and turns skillfully, interpreting the piece an experience of ambient yet positive energy. Around the 19-minute mark the pitch rose, concentrating the mind, but then the sonorous tones of the marimbas’ lower ranges came in again.

Then at 21:45 the performers noticeably reined in the dynamic range, their sticks closer to the instruments as the sound shrunk before our ears. This is a tactic Volans has used on several occasions, working especially well here as percussion is not normally known for quiet performance! The audience subconsciously leant forward in the Wigmore Hall before the reassurance of the full marimba timbre came in again around a minute later. Towards the end it happened again and stayed quiet, proving even more effective second time around.

Stockhausen’s Vibra-Elufa, a short piece (from 35:40), was notable for its intensity and sinuous lines. Performed by Currie alone on marimba, it had moments of tender beauty but also shrill edges, especially when high in the treble range. It left an otherworldly, enchanting impression in the manner of the large-scale stage piece from which it is drawn and arranged, Freitag aus Licht.

Then we were on to Drumming, Steve Reich’s breakthrough masterpiece of 1971 that confirmed minimalism as a community-based musical form (from 44:30). It was a visit to Ghana in 1970 that convinced Reich he was on the right track with what has turned out to be his longest instrumental piece to date. Over time Drumming has evolved, and can even be divided into constituent parts, as here – with Part 1 concentrating on tuned bongos. The technical challenges remain, even over 15 minutes, with improvisational skills and a strong sense of form brought into play. Listen to the broadcast from 44:30 and you will hear how the quartet unite in big strokes of sound but gradually tumble out of phase, picking up kinetic energy as they do so, before aligning again for another commanding statement.

The players were superb, with clear visual communication the secret to a performance notable for its drive, accuracy and flair. Listen to it and lose yourself in the rhythms!
Each of the four pieces in this concert received technically brilliant performances. Currie was the natural leader but Walton, Spillett and Gunnell all stepped forward when required, emphasising the communal approach they have to their music and especially their new commissions. On the way out of the Wigmore Hall I overheard a regular saying it was one of the best lunchtime concerts he had ever been to in the venue, and I am inclined to agree!

Further reading and listening

The music in this concert is not available online, with the exception of Drumming – which exists in a recording made by Steve Reich, Synergy Vocals and the Colin Currie Group. It’s as close to authentic as you could wish for!

Since that recording Currie and Reich have made a live disc from the Foundation Louis Vitton, with a broad range of Reich’s work that includes the classic Clapping Music, the choral piece Proverb, the Mallet Quartet, Pulse and Music for Pieces of Wood. Typically functional titles from the composer there!

There is not a great deal of Kevin Volans’ music on Spotify, but one very good way into his music is via the string quartet – which is where a disc from 1994 from the Balanescu Quartet comes in. Hunting, Gathering, his second string quartet, is particularly evocative:

City AM: Music While You Work

If you live in London, hopefully you have picked up a copy of City AM this morning. If you have, and read the Office Politics section, you’ll have seen my piece about the benefits of listening to classical music while you work.

I really wanted to share those with you here, so please find below links to a playlist on Spotify that will hopefully float your boat!

If you want some specific advice on music to listen to, or want to share an opinion, please get in touch! Send me an e-mail or get in touch over Twitter